The Undebateable Undateables
|Last week, a poster appeared in London advertising a TV show called The Undateables, which reads "Love is blind, disfisgured, autistic..." I'm not going to talk about the poster and the programme here; Matthew has already, Sarah has, Lisa has twice, the second time at Liberal Conspiracy. There's also been a timely article at the Guardian on disability and on-line dating. But I wanted to talk about how the discussion of things like "How The Undateables is the most offensive piece of Channel 4 advertising since Bigger, fatter, gypsier." gets stuck when we begin to address the problems of disabled people in finding love.|
Being romantically irresistible is part of my impairment. It is embarrassing and it sometimes makes it difficult for me to be with other people. They often swoon, break into song, or tear roses from nearby bushes to make into thorny and often bloody bouquets to give me. As a result, I have been single for precisely four days since I was eighteen and even that can be put down to a particularly painful period.
However, I have had reason to contemplate my place in the mire of dating and romance over the years. Before my impairment was properly diagnosed, back when I thought people were staring because of the wheelchair and that light of my life was just another term of casual affection between strangers like pet or sweetheart, I thought I was likely to spend a big chunk of my life single. My ex-husband often told me that he was going to leave me (my condition is very difficult for any partner) and detailed many unattractive attributes in an attempt to reassure me that I wasn't quite as lovely as medical science seemed to suggest. When I looked towards the future, I imagined that I would probably end up being alone.
In a way, this was a helpful exercise. I knew I couldn't live alone and the obvious solution would be to live with friends. Because I'd talked about this with my friends (in the context of if, not when), I had more than one offer of a place to live when I finally decided to leave. Well, two serious offers, one "There's woodland at the back of my house where we could build a den!"
The other way in which it was helpful was that I thought a lot about the prejudices that get between disabled people, romantic happiness and sexual fulfillment.
Attraction is largely involuntary - no individual can be castigated for who they fancy or fall in love with - but there are very few universals. There are one or two around body-shape, but we only see this in data using responses to images, rather than sexual or romantic behaviour. In general, we learn what attractive men and women are like through culture; how fat or thin, how tall or short, what kind of hair they should have on their heads and bodies and how they should behave. This stuff varies a lot around the globe.
So prejudice like disablism and racism certainly interferes with this stuff. It's just impossible to say how much and in what way. Famously, the Observer Sex Survey in 2008 found that 70% of people questioned said they would not have sex with a person with a physical disability. I've used this figure myself, but personally, I think this expresses more about disabled stereotypes than behaviour. After all, most disabled people I know are partnered. I could be wrong, but I reckon if you showed people flattering images of disabled people with a mixture of physical impairments, smiling and having fun, and then asked the question, the response would have been far more positive. If you got people to have a five minute conversation with a selection of specially-selected extra-charming disabled people and then asked the question, you'd almost certainly get a minority expressing a preference.
As it was, many people may have simply thought, “Would I have a sexual relationship with Stephen Hawking?” and the answer came back the same as my response: Astrophysics has no place in the bedroom.
One of the problems dissecting the issue is the way discussions of disability and romance tend to pan out. When someone complains that they feel they're not getting sexual or romantic interest for almost any other reason, whether it's race, weight or age, something religious or cultural, the job they do or being a prince, then there are almost always people there to argue that they are hot and it's not such a big deal. There are always people who come forward to say, "I'm in the same boat, but I've found love and am living happily ever after." or "Well, you seem lovely so I'm sure you'll find someone soon." or even, "Could this all be down to a lack of confidence/ luck/ opportunity?"
But when say, a wheelchair-user talks publicly about problems finding love, the responses tend to come like this:
And so on. Of course, most comments will be empathetic, but few people will actually argue with the idea that the disabled person can't find love because they are disabled (unless they launch into complete denial that it makes a difference to anyone apart from a rare and obvious bigot). Sometimes, especially when it is someone I know and like, I get very tempted. But it is very difficult to say the right thing."I am also disabled and have given up on love. Everything you say is true. Nobody wants us. Everybody hates us!"
The dangers are:
And yet, this subject is important. Not everyone is interested in sex or romance and many people are happy being single (although usually, happy people feel it's a choice). However, for anyone capable of sexual or romantic feeling - single or attached - to feel undesirable is a terrific blow to one's sense of self-worth. That's not vanity or anything shallow, it is part of our identity which feels damaged, inferior. It makes us more vulnerable to creeps and abusers (experience makes me shudder when I read those comments about the immense gratitude some disabled people feel towards a partner just for not abandoning them). It makes us feel less valuable altogether and makes all the battles we have to fight for survival and social progress so much tougher.
I think I may have to write a second post on how we might combat this, apart from the usual, "Magic some confidence from somewhere, damn it!"